In the years after Jesse Webster dropped out of school in ninth grade to help his mother pay the bills in the south side of Chicago, he became involved in a cocaine deal that was aborted before drugs ever changed hands. After hearing he was wanted for questioning, he turned himself in, and was convicted of possession, conspiracy, and filing false tax returns, solely on the basis of testimony by his co-defendants. He declined to become an informant in exchange for a plea deal, worried that it would put his family members at risk.
While his co-defendants received less than five years each for cooperating with the government, Webster, who had no criminal record, was sentenced to life without parole by a judge who said the punishment was too high, but whose hands were tied by a mandatory minimum sentence. Webster has since completed his GED, taught himself skills, and counseled other inmates. But no matter what he does, life without parole means no chance to ever see life outside of prison.
Anthony Jerome Jackson is serving life without parole, too, for stealing a wallet from a hotel room. Jackson has a sixth grade education, and he represented himself at trial. With two other prior convictions, South Carolina’s three-strikes law sent him to prison for life.
Webster and Jackson are not anomalies. Some 3,278 people are serving life sentences with no hope for parole for non-violent offenses, mostly drugs, according to a new report by the American Civil Liberties Union. Those serving life without parole have been handed these sentences for drug offenses as minimal as possession of a crack pipe, a trace amount of cocaine in clothes pockets that invisible to the naked eye, and large quantities of marijuana. Other nonviolent offenses responsible for LWOP punishment include possession of stolen wrenches, stealing tools from the back of a truck, and shoplifting a computer from a Walmart.
Life without parole (LWOP) is the harshest U.S. sentence short of execution. This summer, the European Court of Human Rights ruled the punishment inhuman and degrading. It means a prisoner receives no reward for rehabilitation; never has a chance of seeing life outside of prison walls. The ACLU called it a “living death.”
Overall, one in nine prisoners in overflowing U.S. prisons are serving life sentences — quadruple the number of prisoners serving that sentence in 1984, according to a report by the Sentencing Project earlier this year. The proportion serving that sentence for nonviolent crimes has also increased exponentially, according to the ACLU, thanks in part to mandatory minimum sentences and so-called three-strikes, or habitual offender laws, which escalate punishment for those who have previous convictions. Twenty-two states and the federal government permit life without parole for non-violent crimes. Seven states and the federal government permit the sentence for even first-time, non-violent offenses.
The racial disparity in this sentencing is just as severe as that across the criminal justice system, particularly in southern states. In Louisiana, black prisoners comprise 91.4 percent of the nonviolent life without parole population. In Missippi, they comprise 78.5. In the federal system, blacks were sentenced to life without parole for nonviolent crimes at 20 times the rate of whites, according to the ACLU. The rate at which Latinos are serving life without parole sentences is also several times higher than whites — eight times higher in Illinois, and twice as high in Louisiana.
Once appeals have been exhausted, the only way out of prison for these offenders is a pardon or commutation by either President Obama for federal crimes, or the governor for state crimes. After 18 years in prison during which he earned his GED and counseled other inmates, Webster applied for commutation, a constitutional mechanism through which President Obama can shorten his sentence to correct injustice and grant a second chance. As in several cases involving harsh mandatory minimum drug sentences, the judge who sentenced Webster wrote a letter in support of his commutation, as did the prosecutor who charged him. But unsurprisingly, Webster hasn’t received a positive response from President Obama, who has granted less pardons and commutations than any other president in modern history. In fact, during his entire term in office, he has commuted just one sentence. A Justice Department inspector general investigation found that the U.S. Pardon Attorney, which processes clemency applications, botched the commutation request of another non-violent offender serving life without parole for his nominal role in a drug deal. Both remain behind bars.